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Future Watch: Vesel striving as student-athlete

Tyler Vesel is a scoring threat and shot-blocking machine for the University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks

by Paul Gazzola / EdmontonOilers.com

If hockey were a college program, University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks centre and Oilers prospect Tyler Vesel would be top of his class.

The 22-year-old is an exercise science major but when he's on the ice, the 200-foot game he plays is more akin to general studies. His comprehension of both aspects of hockey - offence and defence - has him majoring in scoring, with a minor in shot-blocking. His point totals give a glimpse of his grade-point average: nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 20 games, averaging about 1.15 points per game - putting Vesel ahead of the curve - and receiving full marks from his professor.

"He's having his best year," said UNO Head Coach Dean Blais, a veteran NCAA bench boss.

"Very responsible; probably our smartest player. Always had a knack for scoring."

The junior's on-ice intelligence is one of the many reasons he's flourished this campaign. Vesel is the first to admit that the success doesn't stem from individual effort. It's familiarity with the level of play and a concerted effort that combines the minds of his linemates - one of which he's shared the ice with for four years now.

"I think it's just getting older and kind of just knowing what to expect," said Vesel. "You kind of just play your game and I'm playing with great players."

The former Shattuck-St. Mary's student is cultivating his game down the middle of the ice with Jake Randolph as his left winger. They've been linemates dating back to the 2013-14 season when both players first united while skating for the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League (USHL). The two put up a combined 157 points that year and after finding the fit, have never looked back.

"Right off the bat we found that chemistry and it just kind of (was) one of those things that kind of clicked," said Randolph. "It's been pretty consistent throughout the whole way leading into college as well."

Skaters Austin Ortega and Justin Parizek rotate as the pair's right winger. Each player adds their own component to the line.

"Justin Parizek, our captain, has played with them," started Blais. "Austin Ortega is playing with them right now…(he's) a sniper; a good up-and-down guy. Jake is kind of the playmaker, guy on the wall. Tyler dishes the puck; he's got great hockey sense.

"So, you've got a finisher, a mucker (or) grinder in Randolph, you've got Tyler who can dish the puck."

In sticking with the scholastics, though, Vesel attributes his line's prowess to their hockey IQ.

"We're all smart players and we just kind of know where to be and I think we think the game better than most players," he said.

Vesel's offensive aptitude is just one facet of his performance. You don't have to pick the brains of Blais or Randolph extensively for them to offer information on Vesel and his potent scoring capabilities. The same can be said for his defensive proficiency. The centreman is also a fine shot-blocker.

"Definitely a two-way centre," said Randolph, a psychology major. "He's responsible on both ends of the puck. It starts in the D-zone. He's always very responsible for his guy and just a great two-way centre that's the best shot-blocker I've ever played with, hands down.

"He can hold me on that; he's the best shot-blocker I've ever played with," continued Randolph. "He's got the perfect technique and timing down."

Stereotypically, defencemen are the ones supposed to be blocking shots. The task is often heralded in praise by the teammates who witness a player sacrifice their body but coaches can get frustrated when an offensive-minded skater risks injury in doing so.

That's not the case with Blais, who views Vesel's dedication to the dirty work as a positive for his club. It's the reason why the Minnesota native is a leader in the dressing room and in contention to be team captain next year as a senior. His ability to block shots smartly has kept him healthy, too.

"The one thing about shot-blocking: you've got to want to block those shots," said Blais. "Some guys go down on one knee, leave their feet and go down and block that way. Tyler finds a way to block it no matter which way he has to and that's just being unselfish and being a good team guy and a leader for us."

 

Vesel can play in any situation, including the penalty kill. Blais, who's coached several prominent NHL names including Zach Parise, Matt Greene, Drew Stafford and Andrej Sustr, believes the best penalty killer he's ever coached is Vesel.

"Two years ago - his freshman year - he led the NCAA with close to 70 blocked shots and the next guy had 50," said Blais. "That's why he's a good penalty killer. I think he's the best penalty killer that I've had and that's going back to North Dakota, too, when we were loaded."

The Oilers prospect still has three semesters of class and a year of college hockey to play. He's been working closely with Blais and some of the Oilers player development personnel to assist him in making it to the next level.

"Working on my skating a lot," said Vesel. "That's been a big part of my game. If I can get a little bit quicker and faster, it'll make things a lot easier… Shooting and passing's always a big one. You got to be able to make plays in tight areas. And then just hard on faceoffs."

Vesel's graduation could see him clutching either a scroll or hockey stick. There's no doubt that he has the tools needed to succeed, along with the know-how to get there. Former college players and current Oilers Drake Caggiula and Matthew Benning are prime examples that taking the college path can pan out.

"It's good to see those guys who do go the college route have success at the NHL, but the college route has been growing on people and it's a good way to go," said Vesel. "I'm glad that I did it."

Blais definitely sees the potential in his pupil.

 "He wants to put the Oilers jersey on," he said. "He's extremely dedicated… He knows how to win; he knows how to play and how to get there."

Images provided by Mark Kuhlmann // coolmancreative@gmail.com

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